Australia PM pledges close ties with Asia
Tue, Jul 20, 2010

SYDNEY - Australian leader Julia Gillard has promised close engagement with Asia if returned to power next month, shrugging off her lack of foreign policy experience and a row over a regional refugee centre.

Gillard admitted she did not have the foreign affairs experience of Kevin Rudd, the Mandarin-speaking former diplomat she ousted last month, but said warm regional ties would be a hallmark of her new government.

"I would like to think that engagement in our region is what would stamp the Gillard government. I mean this is where our future lies," Gillard, who is campaigning for August 21 elections, told public broadcaster ABC late Monday.

"This is where we've got to make our way in an ever-changing and very competitive, sometimes cut-throat world in terms of economic competition. We are a great trading nation. We can make the most of the opportunities in our region."

Gillard's brief stint in office has been marked by problems over the new refugee centre, which she wants to build in East Timor despite strong objections from lawmakers.

Australia's first woman prime minister was also accused of not consulting neighbouring countries widely enough after failing to discuss the proposal with Indonesia, a major transit point for asylum-seekers.

Gillard also cast doubt on the viability of a new "Asia Pacific community" forum suggested by Rudd, but her comments were later contradicted by Foreign Minister Stephen Smith.

"I'm not going to pretend that I've come to this position with a lifetime in foreign affairs," she said. "I haven't. That's true.

"And if you look at some of my predecessors as prime minister, obviously Kevin Rudd had a lifetime of experience in foreign affairs. John Howard did not and we could go back through prime ministers across the ages."

The Welsh-born lawyer's early campaign has focused on quality of life issues and keeping a population boom in check as she tours marginal seats in the state of Queensland and western Sydney ahead of the elections.

Conservative opposition leader Tony Abbott has attacked the government's economic record and pledged A$1.2 billion (S$1.4 billion) in cuts as he bids to overhaul Gillard's lead in the opinion polls.

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